Israel’s “weaponisation” of museums to erase Palestinian existence has been highlighted in a recent article for Al Jazeera by Associate Professor Somdeep Sen, author of Decolonising Palestine: Hamas between the anticolonial and the postcolonial. His book was shortlisted for the 2022 Palestine Book Awards, an annual MEMO event that celebrates the best new books in English about any aspect of Palestine.
Sen described how Israel has weaponised museums as “tools of terror” in its decades-long violent campaign to erase the existence of Palestinians in their ancestral homeland. Palestine has a four thousand year history that dates back to ancient times. Palestinian Jews, Christians, Muslims and various other communities are indigenous to the territory. The advent of Zionism in Europe however caused a violent rupture which culminated in the breakdown of centuries of co-existence.
European Zionist settlers were under no illusion about the fact that the creation of an ethnonationalist Jewish state in a territory where Jews have been a very small minority for nearly two millennia would require extreme violence, religious and cultural vandalism, and the erasure of thousands of years of Palestinian history that bonded together the region’s eclectic makeup. At the turn of the 20th century indigenous Palestinian Jews made up only five per cent of the population. The remaining 95 per cent were Palestinian Muslims and Christians as well as other smaller communities that were indigenous.
“Erasing Palestine and Palestinians is a vocation of the Israeli state,” noted Sen before outlining how the occupation state has used museums to whitewash Zionism’s history of ethnic cleansing. The professor at Denmark’s Roskilde University said that he had noticed the weaponisation of museums by Israel while conducting fieldwork at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2015.
Today the campus looks like a museum itself celebrating Jewish history heritage, Sen explained, while pointing out that it is lined with archaeological artefacts. These include a marble statue of a ruler from the Temple of Augustus in Samaria built by King Herod, and a stone from the Third Wall of the Second Temple that adorns the façade of the Institute of Archaeology.
“The idea is to exhibit the Israeli-ness of the land, while wilfully perpetuating ignorance about the fact that the university was built on stolen Palestinian lands,” Sen argued. “The Museum on the Seam claims to relay the divided history of Jerusalem and its exhibits are meant to ‘raise diverse social issues for public discussion and bridge the gaps’. Yet, in practice, they do little to acknowledge that the building that houses the museum was once owned by the Palestinian Barkami family, which was forced out of Jerusalem in the Nakba.”
Israeli museums’ primary function is to reaffirm the myth of Palestinian non-existence, while reaffirming the connection between the newly arrived Jewish settlers from Europe to Palestine, Sen claimed. “Erasure is not just a matter of physically or materially making Palestinians invisible. It is equally done through the stories that are told of the past. Israeli museums play an important role, as active participants in this colonial effort.”
Sen’s article contained echoes of Professor Saree Makdisi’s, Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial. One of the questions asked in the book is how has Israel been able to get away with its brand of apartheid or, in the words of the author himself: “How can a violent project of colonial dispossession and racial discrimination be repacked — via a system of emotional investments, curated perceptions, and carefully staged pedagogical exercises — into something that can be imagined, felt and profoundly believed in, as though it were the exact opposite?”
The “Museum of Tolerance” is one of several examples of the way in which Israel has successfully re-packaged its settler-colonial takeover of Palestine for its supporters in the West. It is built on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery. The curation of Israel’s image as the “only democracy in the Middle East”; Israel’s celebration of gay culture which often gets labelled “pink washing”; and mass afforestation project to “make the desert bloom” are also mentioned by Prof. Makdisi.